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Jordan Peele mixes science fiction and thrills in 'Nope'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Filmmaker Jordan Peele has an enviable record as a writer-director. Both of his first two films - the mystery thriller "Get Out" and the horror thriller "Us" - earned rave reviews, and he chalked up more than a quarter of a billion dollars in ticket sales. His latest thriller, "Nope," mixes science fiction with the thrills in ways that critic Bob Mondello promises us he will be very careful talking about.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In fact, let me start, much as the filmmaker does...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

BRANDON PEREA: (As Angel Torres) So you guys going to tell me what's going on?

KEKE PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Hell no.

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) No.

MONDELLO: ...By not talking about thrills or science fiction at all but by introducing our leading siblings, O.J. and Emerald Haywood, descended from a guy you might call the ancestor of all film stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Did you know that the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture was a two-second clip of a Black man on a horse?

MONDELLO: Eadweard Muybridge's 19th century chronophotograph not only got moving pictures moving. It also proved that when a horse gallops, there's a split second when all its hooves have left the ground, an early proof of reality miracle of what would someday be called cinema, though the film crew Emerald's talking to seems unimpressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) That man is my great-great-grandfather.

KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) Great.

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) There's another great-grandfather. But that's why back at the Haywood Ranch, as the only Black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood, we like to say since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.

MONDELLO: That little joke gets a chuckle from one crew member and will be worth remembering later since Jordan Peele has built this whole movie around the idea of capturing an image no one has seen before, which is where the sci-fi part comes in. O.J. and Em, played by a wonderfully still Daniel Kaluuya and a forever bouncy Keke Palmer, keep experiencing strange stuff from the Haywood Ranch. And they become increasingly convinced that the strangeness is coming from above.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Bro, what you see?

KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) Something above the clouds. It's big.

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) How big?

KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) Big.

MONDELLO: Em figures this could be their Oprah moment if they can just get the right footage. O.J. is skeptical.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) There's plenty of videos online.

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Ain't nobody going to get what we going to get.

KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) What we going to get?

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) The money shot, undeniable proof of aliens on camera.

MONDELLO: To get the money shot, of course, they'll need a crusty old cinematographer named Antlers...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

MICHAEL WINCOTT: (As Antlers Holst) That cloud ain't moved an inch.

MONDELLO: ...And a credulous young tech guy named Angel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

PEREA: (As Angel Torres) It's aliens. They're just waiting for the perfect time to shove metal probes up our [expletive].

WINCOTT: (As Antlers Holst) I'll be rooting for you.

MONDELLO: All of this still early stages in a story that manages to make credible threats from a TV sitcom ape that goes bananas...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Yeah, no, no, no.

MONDELLO: ...A one-time child star who now looks starward...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Nope.

MONDELLO: ...Horses turned into chapter headings...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Nope.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Nope.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Nope.

MONDELLO: ...A kitsch-filled, cowboy-themed amusement park, ominous house keys, coins, floppy air dancing balloon men, more elements and plot threads than Peele can comfortably wrangle at times. Still, watching him release his inner Spielberg is certainly fun, not to mention his inner '50s sci-fi geek and, occasionally to somewhat less stellar effect, his inscrutable inner M. Night Shyamalan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

PEREA: (As Angel Torres) I need y'all to tell me. What did you see in that cloud?

KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) Well, it is not what you think.

MONDELLO: While heading off into so many different film styles, tangents and subplots may not be wise from a narrative standpoint, you have to credit Peele with generosity for throwing in the works. This is the first time he's had a blockbuster budget, and he's used it to get the cinematographer from "Interstellar" to shoot Big Sky Country with IMAX clarity, the special effects master from "Ad Astra" to conjure visuals that are flat-out otherworldly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Run, O.J. Run.

MONDELLO: And with all of that, Peele clearly knows that nothing he puts on screen can top the sheer cinematic force of Daniel Kaluuya's gaze. This actor has the capacity to paralyze a camera, make looking away all but impossible even in a movie so hellbent on capturing an image that looking away is said to be the only thing that can save your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL OF CONFUSION")

THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH: (Singing) Horns.

MONDELLO: Look away from him - not ever. Nope. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL OF CONFUSION")

THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH: (Singing) Higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher. Let the music take your mind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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